Richards, How To Read A Page

Richards, I.A. How To Read A Page. Boston: Beacon Press, 1942.

HTRAP demonstrates Richards’ variation on close reading. His approach is intent on addressing and resolving (to the extent possible) misunderstanding. Building on the ideas briefly put forward in Speculative Instruments and in Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards says he “is trying to devise another sort of verbal machine: something which may be a help in using books as machines to think with” (9). Mechanisms for thinking are focused on textuality–words and meanings–more than in something from the same era, like Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945). Richards reiterates points he made two years earlier in “The Resourcefulness of Words,” preferring ‘resourcefulness’ to ‘ambiguity’ and noting that “[w]ords get their values from their togetherness and enter into infinitely subtler and more manifold relations to one another than any addition can represent” (237). Whether or not Richards falls neatly into (the middle of) the New Critics is a question I’m not prepared to resolve just yet. He enacts a method that certainly could be described as close reading, but it’s not the sort of close reading motivated by an aesthetic imperative so much as it is motivated by the co-existing elliptical and emphatic qualities of words. Richards seems to me to be making a case for understanding the interdependence of words and more: their power of expansion. Certainly his writing is pre-digital, but there are traces in Richards that match up reasonably well with semantic networks: the net-like paths of activation that a single word or term can touch off.

No question there are features to this book that stand out as odd, such as the list of 103 “most important words” (22). But if there is more–particularly in the thread that follows Richards to Berthoff to Haynes to contemporary, theoretically invested arguments for the value in abstraction (as a network phenomenon?), then Richards deserves more nuanced consideration for the way he uses words to wander–connectively–from passage to passage, piling through the systematic ambiguity of language. At the very least, abstraction makes possible the connective leap–the relay the lets meaning play horizontally and not only vertically (as in the General Semanticist’s Ladder of Abstraction).

“Modern historical scholarship especially terrorizes us with the suggestion that somewhere in the jungle of evidence there is something we happen not to know which would make the point clear, which would show us just what the author did in fact mean. That suspicion of a missing clue is paralyzing–unless we remember firmly that from the very nature of the case essential clues are always missing. However much evidence we amass, we still have to jump to our conclusions” (14).

“A chief modern difficulty in such understanding comes from the recent development of the historical sense” (13). On the abundance of reading available to us and the many devices (dictionaries, concordances, histories, and biographies) that might make reading–in the face of such abundance–easier.